Gareth Southgate’s England are close to qualifying for a World Cup, but have never felt further way from the form that fired their last tournament.
A core of the Euro 2020 team are very suddenly suffering some of their worst club issues for some time. The four points needed to secure qualification for Qatar 2022 are offset by the reality that at least six of the summer’s starters have been struggling for form. Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire have been the subject of unwelcome focus at Manchester United, with Jadon Sancho barely able to get on the pitch to get any focus. Admittedly, Jack Grealish is going through the process of adapting to Pep Guardiola’s football, but is some way off excelling. While Raheem Sterling consequently remains in and out of the City team.
The most conspicuous of all is the most important of all: Harry Kane. England’s normally free-scoring striker has only hit one goal in the Premier League this season, while the last qualifier – that disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Hungary – was the first in 15 where he failed to score.
Much has been made of Kane’s club situation – which illustrates how some of these issues are just a matter of timing or coincidence – but it’s difficult to escape the feeling there’s something more general happening with England.
It has happened to a few top teams who lost finals, going back to Italy 1994, Czech Republic 1996, Italy 2000, Portugal 2004, Italy 2012 and Croatia 2018.
Some of that is entirely natural. Such campaigns, especially when they’re at home, entail such an emotional investment that there is going to be an inevitable drop-off. It has been compounded by the all the rigours of the modern game, and especially the 15 months of Covid abnormality in the football calendar.
It is both physical and psychological, as Kane touched on when he faced the media for England on Thursday, the first time since Euro 2020. He was reluctant to discuss his failed move to Manchester City, but did elaborate a lot on the effects of the summer.
“It’s never easy,” Kane explained. “I came off the back of a tournament where you’re physically tired, you’re mentally tired and all of a sudden three weeks later the Premier League is pretty much starting and you’re just straight back into it. We’ve had to deal with that as players more and more so we’ve got a little bit more used to it but it’s never easy.
“It’s never easy just to switch that mode back on and start firing on all cylinders again. Your body needs time to respond physically and mentally. From a club level point of view we’ve still got a long way to go. There’s plenty of games to go. We have a new manager and that will bring a new energy to the team and to everyone personally. From an international point of view, it has been a great year and it’s trying to reflect on all the good things that we’ve done over. If we can finish these two games strong now that puts us through to the World Cup, which we’ll be looking forward to. That’s our main focus at the moment.”
That’s also the interesting thing here. While it feels entirely fair to discuss how individuals have dropped off, that hasn’t really been the case with the England team as a collective. The disappointing 1-1 draw at home to Hungary really felt like an aberration amid another strong series of performances, particularly the first game back, which was the reverse fixture in Budapest. England were brilliant and defiant, in a 4-0 win that all but secured qualification.
They now have the chance to do that mathematically at home against Albania and away to San Marino, and Southgate obviously has immense confidence in his team. That’s just the atmosphere within the squad now. It makes some difference in the recent history of English football that the national team can actually serve as a refuge from club form, but it’s difficult to argue otherwise. Southgate even touched on this when discussing Sterling’s relative lack of appearances for City.
“I know I do always say there is a preference for us that players are playing regularly because they’re match-sharp, they’re ready, but if their physical condition is good and they’re playing enough football, then also, we’ve got to look at who we feel our best players are,” said the England manager.
“That doesn’t mean they’re undroppable. And I think any player in the squad has been in or out at some time, Raheem included. And that doesn’t mean if we’re not playing well, we won’t take players off, because we’ve also done that, but there’s a balance with your selection. ‘OK, who’s in form, but over how long a period is that, have they produced in the big matches yet, do we know quite yet what they can do?’ And Raheem has proved time and time again with us how important he’s been, and that his level is really high. And he’s at a club with an incredible roster of players that it’s complicated at times to get games, but he’ll work his way into the team, I’m sure.”
England have meanwhile steadily moved themselves towards qualification, to the point that Southgate has barely mentioned the word around the squad this week. As with so much in this squad, the message is really that such results will follow naturally if everything else is right.
“We really focus on performance, and how do we improve the level of performance, because in the end everything comes as a consequence of that. Of course, physical condition and mentality are a huge part of winning football matches, but you have to concentrate on the bits you can control. Qualification will be an outcome of winning the game, and winning the game will be an outcome of playing well. You can win matches not playing well, but we’ve always got to strive to improve every area of our game to make the transfer from the training pitch onto the match pitch where we can.
“We’ve had a good focus this week on making sure we’re on the front foot in the game and making sure that our pressing is better than it was that night [against Hungary] and making sure we’re sharp with the ball and move it quickly. These teams are well organised and you’ve got to break down a packed defence. Our quality has got to come to the fore. But if you can win the ball higher up the pitch, you can catch them when they are perhaps a little bit disorganised. They are things that we’ve had a good training week to focus on.”
It does help that there is now such a conveyor belt of quality that many players who weren’t at Euro 2020 are excelling. One, in Emile Smith Rowe, wasn’t even supposed to be in the senior squad, only for other issues elsewhere to open the space. There is an excitement about what he can do.
“I think we’ve brought him here to be involved with the team, and with a view to being involved in the two matches,” Southgate said. “He’s settled really well. He obviously knows a couple of his club teammates, Phil [Foden] from when he was in the under-17s, and this is a group that makes young players and new players very welcome. So I don’t think it’s a difficult environment to fit in. His quality has been apparent in the way he’s trained. So he’s ready, and we’ve enjoyed having him with us this week already.”
England are hoping to enjoy one final night at Wembley in 2021, to cap off what was mostly a fine year at the stadium. The game on Friday is a sell-out, and the hope is that a good Albania team will come into something of a carnival, and be seen off with a solid result.
“I think we’ve had some incredible nights already at Wembley this year. We started … with nobody in the ground, so for us to finish it with a full house shows the progress the team have made, the connection back with the fans and the fact life is returning to normal as well,” Southgate said.
“It is an amazing level of support we get when you look around the other teams in Europe, and we want to put on a performance that sends people home happy, and also those that will be watching at home.”
It might just lift some of the players, too.